Nobody in the 90s cared about the history of videogames: everyone just played them really. Truthfully though, back then the medium was still in its teenage years; it would be like expecting 15th century painters to organize an exhibition about Renaissance art. In 2021, videogames are approaching their middle age, consequently more and more documentaries and books about their history are seeing the light. Retrogaming is not only anymore about remembering, but also about trying to write down what happened, at least before everything gets lost or forgotten. Even Netflix got in on the action with the highly praised High Score series.
Unfortunately, watching that documentary only seems to further cement an easily noticeable thread: the narrative on video game history tends to be very US-centric. Personally, I feel it is important, then, to jump at every possible chance to uncover facts and tidbits about what happened in Europe in the 80s and 90s.
Sega was among the first Japanese videogame companies to set about conquering the West, in both US and Europe. They accomplished this by getting to know the different tastes of their potential audience and, then, trying to appeal to that specific public. That approach took its time to work on the American public that, disappointed by the whole Atari market failures, needed a different vibe to fall in love again with videogames: cue Nintendo.
In Europe things were different, Mattel generally handled distribution of the NES for Europe but still, the console took a while to gain its footing, while the Master System reigned supreme via specific agreements with German and Spanish distributors. It took several years, only by 1992 were Nintendo and Sega were competing on the same level on the EU market, with Nintendo obviously ending taking over the market in the following years, because of Sega’s notorious missteps with the Mega CD (the PAL name for the Sega CD) and the 32X, released in Europe in 1993. Still, even as late as 92, there was really no such thing as “Nintendo of Europe”: the company was distributed by different companies in each nation, hence each market has its own peculiar story.
In Italy, in general, Nintendo and Sega were distributed by two different toy importers: Nintendo with GiG and Sega with Giochi Preziosi. But there’s a whole story to be discovered, so let’s start with Nintendo.
Wonderland & Mattel: rapping, romance and Einstein
Wonderland – a subsidiary of toys company Worlds of Wonder – was the first to handle Nintendo in Italy, it wasn’t a long lasting relationship though. The Japanese company was pretty unhappy with the poor sales, the high price point and the very limited TV commercials done by the company. The problem seemed to solve itself though, since after little more than a year, World of Wonders was bought out by Mattel.
In 1988, Mattel took over distribution of the NES console.
Their new approach, as seen in the first TV commercials, didn’t seem to revolutionize what Wonderland was doing. They still referred to the NES as a “video system” and to the Zapper as a “video pistol”. This choice of dictionary seemed more in line with Atari and Intellivision, rather than how the NES was being sold in the US. In 1988 Mattel went ahead with the idea of “Nintendo centers”: toy stores where it was possible to try Nintendo titles like Duck Hunt or Super Mario Bros.
By 1990, with the new decade rolling in, the company’s approach saw a radical shift towards something completely unexpected: celebrity endorsement. While this was a common strategy for many Italian commercials, it was pretty unheard of in the world of toys, especially in the eighties. At the time, it was normal for commercials aimed at children to be relegated to the afternoon time slots, where the “TV per ragazzi” (Television for kids) had its place. No self-respecting ad-man would ever consider working for a toy company.
For once, it seemed like Mattel was thinking one step ahead of its rivals. The chosen celebrity was Italian singer and rapper Jovanotti, who at the time was some sort of poor man’s Vanilla Ice. But Jovanotti had a pretty young target audience, hence it was a sensible choice. At the time, home computers were aimed at just anyone, while consoles seemed to be a better fit for kids and young adults.
Jovanotti and Nintendo: the "Vanilla Spaghetti" ad campaign
What is strange about the “Vanilla Spaghetti” campaign is that, keeping in mind it dates back more than thirty years, it almost seems like Mattel wanted to shrug off Nintendo’s typical family-friendly atmosphere. They abandoned the outdated dictionary of “video system” and the serious Atari and Intellivision-inspired TV commercials and instead went for something “cooler”, “rad” and, perhaps, a bit more “adult”.
The most notorious TV commercial showed Jovanotti trying to woo a girl by showing her how to play Super Mario Bros, along with vague romantic/sexual innuendos. Yes, that is actually the Italian rapper whispering sensually to her about “Mario having to do a lot of jumps…”. Keep in mind that those commercials were – supposedly – aimed at a target audience of 8 to 12 year olds.
The only other Mattel commercial I’ve managed to find online actually centers around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, even though it plays almost like an afterthought. In this advert Jovanotti, while playing Top Gun, is having a party with random people who don’t seem very interested in playing with the NES.
Naturally, center stage is taken by the appearance of an Einstein lookalike. Was Einstein popular for kids in 1990? Was he ever popular? What has he got to do with NES?
While the good scientist is busy playing, Jovanotti receives a phone call by none other than “Mr. Nintendo” (?) and he goes into another room where, of course, there is another Nintendo console. He goes on, referring to the USA as the “go-to” market, if it’s popular there then it’s gotta be good! It may as well be just a reference to the musician’ style at the time, since he was either wearing rapper clothes or cowboy boots.
For all intents and purposes, the “Jovanotti” campaign seemed to have been short-lived: two TV commercials and a couple of shots for magazine ads with the singer standing on a Harley Davidson, again catering to his beloved “child of America” motif. I haven’t been able to track down anyone from Mattel to confirm it, but my guess is that Jovanotti didn’t really help sales, which – at least – seems to make sense with what happened next.
Reportedly, it seems like Mattel gave up on Nintendo products by 1990, with both companies parting ways the following year. Nintendo, then, had only one real sensible choice left: going for the big player in the toys department.
And that player was GiG.
GiG and Nintendo: Nintendoes what Sega don't
*This section of the article was culled from an interview with a former marketing director for Nintendo in Italy*
GiG company, founded in the 60s by Gianfranco Aldo Horvat, was the biggest toy importer and distributor in the country at the time, having full control on distribution over the whole Italian territory. Mattel, apparently, had also relied on GiG’s effective distribution in order to cover some of the more “difficult” areas.
As it turns out by talking to one of the company’s former marketing directors (who personally managed Nintendo from 1992 onward), GiG also committed to acquire whatever stock was left from Mattel as contractual obligation. Apparently, he mentions there were a lot of unsold Gameboy consoles and NES catridges left in stock.
This seems to make sense when looking at Mattel’s marketing strategy: they did pretty few Gameboy commercials and none that seemed particularly brilliant. It almost feels like that they either didn’t know how to market the portable handheld console or weren’t really interested.
Gig’s first order of business: selling the leftover NES stock, along with its accessories. Then, they had to find a creative way to market the Game Boy. Last but not least, they also had to prepare for the arrival of Super Nintendo, which was going to be unleashed in Italy a few months down the line, in 1993.
Definitely no small feats, any of them.
The marketing director tells me that Nintendo of Germany acted as a direct employer of GiG, a supervisor of sorts, also estabilishing a whole set of guidelines, rules and prices. Still, it was only natural that GiG was way more knowledgeable of the Italian market than NoG, so for the most part, GiG made its own decisions.
First, the toy distributor hired the Armando Testa advertising agency, at the time one of the more famous in the country, and launched a campaign for the NES, focusing on the most recent games (Super Mario Bros 3 among them) coupled with a more aggressive pricing scheme for games and accessories. Subsequently, they decided to pull out all the stops and produce an Italian market-specific big budget TV commercial, directed by then famous actor and director Maurizio Nichetti.
Unfortunately – the MD tells me – the end result wasn’t worth all the sweat and tears, not to mention the big budget, the marketing office managed to pull for the commercial. Nichetti himself, by the end, seemed to give up on the project and walk away. The commercial is fine and the production value shows, especially compared to other similar products of the time, but it is neither weird nor memorable enough to make one say “oh man, gotta get me a Gameboy!”.
But ─ I asked GIG’s former marketing director ─ why go as far as hiring a famous director for an already four year-old handheld like the Game Boy and, instead, not make something new for the Super Nintendo?
He replied that the Armando Testa agency and Gig quarreled for months on ideas and projects. The agency wanted a mature and serious commercial, GiG still wasn’t ready to consider a console as something more than a toy. In the end, it was deemed more sensible to go with the cheapest and safest choice, one that Nintendo of Germany also strongly supported, thus making everyone “happy”. The international ad was re-cut and used in Italy too, the one with the robotic theme.
Apparently, some of the images were also deeemd a bit too strong for Italian kids’ tastes so it was toned down a bit, but the main theme was kept intact.
At the same time, GiG was also distributing the infamous Tiger handhelds: something that Nintendo, naturally, didn’t like, sensing a clear interference with the Game Boy market. The MD tells me that they tried to reassure the Japanese company by telling them the Tigers were “an introduction to the world of serious gaming”, so that girls and boys could then, a couple of years later, approach the more serious Nintendo consoles.
The Italian version of Club Nintendo was also being managed by GiG, after being set up by Mattel: it was little more than a poor man’s copy of Nintendo Power in America. A monthly publication with tips and tricks for games, and some poorly translated articles; it’s no wonder it’s not fondly remembered!
But, what about the idea of going back to celebrity endorsement? Sega at the time was heavy into various soccer players and actors, as we will see in the next article about Giochi Preziosi, maybe Nintendo could also benefit from such a strategy? Gig always had a real “toy-centered” philosophy – the MD replied to my observation – hence, they weren’t keen on using celebrity endorsement to sell a product. “We wanted to keep our focus on the product, if it’s good then it’s going to sell, it doesn’t need an actor or a rapper attached to it” he commented.
“Everything else is Game Over!” cry the kids in the commercial. GiG was trying to use slightly older teenagers by the mid 90s.
Sony's arrival: the beginning of the end
In that short span of two years, ’93-’94, Nintendo seemed to swiftly made up for the false start in Italy, obviously helped by the fact that Sega, at that point, was struggling to find a market to sell their various Megadrive expansions. Also, it was hard to deny that by 1993 Super Nintendo games looked way better than the Megadrive ones.
GiG focused on showing the Nintendo consoles and games as much as possible, even in TV programmes outside of the traditional children’s cartoon slots in the afternoon. They even went so far as promoting Nintendo on prime time television, which was something unheard of for game consoles. They also made a couple of short campaigns to sell Nintendo watches (very similar to the Swatch line of wristwatches), one could get a “free” watch by buying three Super Nintendo cartridges.
But, things were slowly coming to a head and by 1995, with Sony releasing Playstation, the writing was on the wall.
My interviewee recalls the “disastrous launch” of the Nintendo 64, being sold in Italian shops in March of 1997. By then, the Japanese company’s way of promoting their games and consoles seemed to be out of step with everything else, but still no amount of persuasion by GiG could make them change their mind.
The toy company did try to go above and beyond the call of duty, with a futuristic N64 commercial with a 3D rendering of the console, produced by an external studio. They also slightly tweaked Nintendo’s image and language to sound a bit less family friendly than before.
Notice how GiG was trying to play to its strengths, reminding consumers about the “two years of warranty” (like that is a feature of the console…). Still, the Playstation had Resident Evil, Ridge Racer, Tekken; the N64 couldn’t really compete, even though it might have been the more powerful console.
Well, if we don’t consider the Dreamcast, of course! Dreamcast advertising never reached Italian television though, but that story is reserved for the article about Sega in Italy.
In 1997 another event changed the way of marketing videogames to kids and teenagers: MTV finally arrived in Italy. The marketing director recalls that Nintendo had little to no space in that new television channel reserved for teenagers: it was all Sony again and again. The console market in Italy ended up paying a hefty price for all these years of exclusively catering to children, by positioning gaming consoles right next to toys. No adult would ever be seen in public playing a Gameboy, or going into a toy shop to buy a SNES.
When Sony arrived screaming to the world “Playstation is for teenagers and adults”, things dramatically changed overnight: GIG was left in the dust, while Sega with Giochi Preziosi had all but disappeared.
1998-1999: Nintendo's desperation and GiG's bankruptcy
By 1998 Nintendo agreed that something was missing from their marketing philosophy and conceded to try something else.
So, GiG ended up producing some of their final TV commercials, in an attempt to try and get back at Sony on their playing field: alternative, hyper and “crazy” commercials obviously inspired by what was the style of MTV Italy at the time.
Not only the rapping idea sounds like something Jovanotti would have tried in 1990, but the whole thing was terribly nonsensical and misguided. Also note the use of apparent young slang like “Nintendo high!” in a desperate attempt to sound relevant with the kids but, instead, ending up horribly out of step with anything else.
But the problems didn’t just end with the marketing being outdated.
Sony worked by making direct agreements with shops and distributors, light years ahead of Nintendo that always a little stingy and peculiar in their demands. Things haven’t changed much on that front, have they? With the big N intent at keeping its principles intact, It seemed like nothing could stop the rise of the Playstation.
A last ditch attempt was made by GiG, something unheard of for the Kyoto company and never again replicated: Nintendo as the main sponsor of a soccer team! Since GiG’s headquarters were in Firenze (Florence), the chosen team was obviously the big-league home-team Fiorentina and, wouldn’t you know it, there actually was a moment when Nintendo trampled Sony in the dust… but, alas, only on the soccer field. In a match that resulted in Fiorentina beating Juventus, which at the time was sponsored by Sony.
The MD recalls everyone in the office printing huge photos of the match and posting them everywhere, savouring the small victory. The sponsorship apparently wasn’t appreciated by everyone; even former Nintendo of America’s president Minoru Arakawa complained that it wasn’t Nintendo’s way of doing things. Still, GiG persevered and, in the end, won over Nintendo’s resistance.
The Fiorentina sponsorship was GiG’s final marketing stunt, by the end of 1999 the toy company was on its last legs.
Two years prior, Toys ‘R’ Us had landed for the first time in Italy with huge American-style stores, and retailed many of the same toys that GiG was also importing from Asia. In an attempt to stem their new biggest enemy, GiG stepped in to acquire the Italian branch of Toys R Us, paying it something like 30 million in today’s EUR/Dollars. A hefty sum that ended up being fatal for the company and its owner.
The main issue was that Toys R Us, a strong American brand, meant next to nothing in Italy, hardly a competitor for GiG, really. In fact there seemed to be really no market for these huge shops in the middle of nowhere. By December of 1999 “the GiG was up”: they went bankrupt and ended up being bought out by their fiercest competitor, Giochi Preziosi. A pretty bittersweet ending, considering the two companies once tried (and failed) to reach a joint agreement in order not to interfer in each others’ market.
By 2002, after a couple of years of marketing by Giochi Preziosi, Nintendo decided to establish a subsidiary in Milano, in the North of Italy, thus forever leaving the city of Florence and acting directly with no third party involved any longer. In 2009 former Gig’s owner, Gianfranco Horvat, died in tragic circumstances, shooting his wife and then killing himself.
Nintendo’s presence in Italy has been single-handedly created and shaped by a Florence-based company, and one could say that for nearly a decade Nintendo has been as Florentine as Renaissance is.
Nintendo in Italy was a story of simple business choices.
On one hand, GiG managed to do what Mattel couldn’t, in order to establish Nintendo as the driving force of the Italian console market by the mid 90s. On the other hand, neither GiG nor Nintendo were prepared to fight against Sony’s overpowering presence and new adult language.
This Nintendo “monopoly” also heavily contributed to Italy, becoming, by the end of the 90s and almost overnight, a Playstation stronghold. The country was indeed fond of Nintendo, but the company never had such a strong foot in the door like in the American market, hence it was easy for Playstation to take their place. Little has changed since.
At the most famous national games and comic fair, the Lucca Comics & Games, it is easy to notice Sony’s huge stands against a very little presence by Nintendo and, close to none, Sega. The console battle against Giochi Preziosi might have been won by GiG, but the war was lost.
Sources and References
Many many thanks to Giuliano Doccioli and the Marketing Director for GiG, who prefers to remain anonymous, for the precious help in revealing first hand and unheard-of facts of videogames distribution and marketing in Italy.